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The 5 Historical Events That Most Shaped My Life

Which of these impacted you?

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photo collage of historical events that shaped ones life
Franziska Barczyk
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As we sat down as a family to watch the first January 6th House Select Committee hearing, I told my young adult son, “We are watching history being made.” I added, “You will always remember where you were when this was going on.”

His response: "Actually, mom, I was planning on going out with my friends.”

OK, whatever.

While I would have preferred that he had said “Great!” I understand that for Gen Z, this just may have been another day in witnessing the challenges that have defined our political and cultural landscape for the past several years. But it got me thinking about which historical events have shaped my own life. Here are the five top events — in no particular order — that made me who I am today.

The Woodstock Festival of Music and Art and Aquarian Exposition 

For a weekend in the drenching rain and muggy heat of Aug. 1969, I was one of the 400,000 who listened to incredible music and danced with abandon in an Upstate New York field of mud. To say that you “were there” is to say plenty about who you were, if not who you still are. Mere attendance at Woodstock defines you as a member of the Counterculture Club, the people who were committed to changing the America of the 1960s. We helped end an unpopular war and showed the world how we could all get along. Woodstock was where I first felt a true sense of community. I stood among peers who were kind to one another, encouraged to help not harm, and we demonstrated how differences could be resolved peaceably. I won’t sugarcoat the discomfort or physical hardships of the massive festival — enough to send me packing up and going home early. Though I left filled with hope of reconciliation with those who saw the world differently — which was pretty much everybody my elder.

Nixon resigns over Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein’s journalism

The unfolding of the Watergate scandal did more than force President Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace. It also fueled a generation of journalists who wanted to be just like the two badass The Washington Post reporters who broke the story that led to Nixon’s downfall. Those reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, became journalism’s superheroes, worshipped by communication and English majors everywhere who wanted to make a difference.

I was one of them. In 1973, I abandoned my brief teaching career and took a reporting job for exactly half the pay at a now-defunct newspaper in Long Branch, New Jersey. I then spent the bulk of my career at The Los Angeles Times, where I was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. And I wrapped things up as an editor and columnist at the Huffington Post, where I took inspiration from my much-younger colleagues about the many new ways to tell a news story.

But behind every story I ever wrote was this foundation: Just like Woodward and Bernstein, I understood and accepted the tremendous responsibility of being the public’s watchdog. My job was to right the wrongs, correct the injustices, and give power to the voiceless. My professional role in the universe was defined and cemented by those two reporters.

Sept. 11, 2001

I was getting dressed for work on the West Coast when the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I was still frozen in place 17 minutes later when the second plane flew into the South Tower. At the time, I was an opinion editor at the Los Angeles Times and for the next few days, I pretty much lived at the newspaper, trying to help readers – and myself – understand what had just transpired.

It’s been said that the world has never been the same since that attack. Collectively, we’ve had to accept our vulnerability and the fragility of our lives — which goes way beyond the inconvenience of taking our shoes off in the airport TSA line. We were asked to fathom the unfathomable.

I don’t know how to erase those images of the towers crashing down, the jumpers choosing certain death, the stunned onlookers covered in ash. I remember the silence of the skies from planes being grounded. I remember the posters of the missing, the people who were never found. I also remember how 10 days after 9/11, when our hearts ached for our lost innocence as a nation, there was a primetime benefit concert called “America: A Tribute to Heroes” and musical legends from all genres came together to sing our sorrow, from Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Wonder. And for the second time in my life, music was the salve that helped me begin to heal.

JFK assassination

Of course, this is on my list. But truth be told, not for the reasons you probably think. I was in the 8th grade and my teacher was summoned out of our classroom by the kindergarten teacher he was rumored to be dating. When he returned, his face was ashen. Without looking at us, he sat behind his desk and buried his face in his hands.

After what seemed like hours but was only minutes, he regained composure and announced, “President Kennedy has been shot.” A few gasped. A few cried. A few sat silently. The PA system crackled to life with discharge instructions. I am reminded of that day whenever I hear about another school shooting. How do those teachers handle their room full of students? How do they tell them? And why should they have to?

Jan. 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol

I was working in my home office when a friend texted “Turn on MSNBC. Right now!” I did and remained glued to it straight through to the evening. My Twitter feed exploded. Nobody posted food pictures on Instagram or Facebook. The images of insurrectionists desecrating the Capitol, using fists and flagpoles as weapons to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power seemed unbelievable. Not here. Not in America. Not in my America. While the final chapters of this day in history are still being written, few dispute that democracy came within an inch of its life on that day. Heck, even my Gen Z son stuck around.

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